Josh Pfleuger lives each day in a wheelchair and is surrounded daily by athletes he can never compete against.
Yet, ask any member of the Joshua Owls football team and they’ll say he stands tallest among anyone in the program.
Josh, a junior, was born with Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy (DMD). It’s a rare genetic disorder characterized by progressive muscle degeneration. It primarily affects young boys.
In Europe and North America, it’s found in about six out of every 100,000 youngsters. It was once considered something of a miracle if a youth with DMD lived past Josh’s age of 18, but thanks to research and developments, many are now living into their early 30s.
But Josh is special for much more than having a rare disease with no cure. In his role as a student assistant coach, he’s a helper, a morale booster, and, of course, the biggest Owls fan found far and wide.
“I’ve grown up loving the game. The coach before Coach (Gary) Robinson, Mike Burt, gave me a shot, and I’m forever grateful,” Josh said. “I figured since I can’t play, assistant coaching would be a great way for me to be a part of the team. Anything I can do for the boys on the team, I’m there.”
That includes a lot more than being their biggest supporter with the loudest cheers — though he does plenty of that. Robinson said Josh is an extra set of eyes that notice a lot, from which he relays helpful information.
“He’s at every practice, every game and he’s a great observer. He studies everything, the weight room, agility drills, every play in practice. He sees a lot that I don’t,” Robinson said. “He might say we’re working hard or that we need to pick it up, and he doesn’t hold anything back. He might even say to me, ‘Coach, you need to pick it up.’ And I know to do that when he says it, because he takes it very seriously and he’s not joking.”
Senior football player Nyke Martin said he feels blessed to be a member of the team while Josh is involved. He said Josh is the biggest inspiration to him and everyone else on the squad, starting with his infectious laugh and smile.
“He’s full of jokes and there’s never a dull moment around him,” Martin said. ”This team would be completely different without him here. He’s one of the smartest and nicest people you will ever meet, and I’m proud to call him one of my best friends.”
The Owls, who close out this season at home on Friday vs. Everman, haven’t been to the football playoffs since 1996. Robinson said it would be a special graduation gift for Josh if they could end that streak in 2020.
“No one could be happier than him if we could break this drought. We would love to get there before he graduates. We’re watching this next realignment very closely and hoping it puts us in a favorable district,” Robinson said.
The biennial University Interscholastic League realignment is in early February, when teams across the state learn officially what classification and district they’re in.
Joshua (1-8, 1-6) has been in District 5-5A Division II this season and last, playing with one of the greatest programs in Texas history, Aledo, and other postseason regulars such as Burleson Centennial, Burleson, and Midlothian.
And while Josh would love for the skid to end, he’s enjoying life nonetheless.
He’s never happier than when he’s working alongside Robinson and his staff, helping his beloved Owls get just a little better.
He’s also developed a special relationship with Robinson, a bond that encourages each on their path through their respective challenges in life.
“It’s just fun to come out here, do what I love to do, and have a friend like him to talk to,” Josh said.
“If there’s a day that I’m not feeling my best, if he sees that I’m not bouncing around, or I’m feeling down, he’ll come over to me and lift me up. Absolutely, he’s an inspiration to me,” Robinson added.
Life after high school
Josh comes from a sports-oriented family. His dad played football at Granbury and later at Tarleton State University; his mother was a basketball and softball player at Tolar; and his older sister Hannah played basketball and softball at Joshua before playing softball at Howard Payne.
Which, of course, explains Josh’s love of sports. In fact, he wants to be a sports broadcaster.
“I have a lot of knowledge of the game and I’m always wanting to learn more,” he said. “I love talking about sports, and what better way to make a living?”
Josh would also like to continue being a student assistant coach in college. He’s considering North Texas and TCU.
Robinson said he’ll be an asset to any program that will bring him in, just as he has been at Joshua.
“You bet he could help a college program. We did talk a little about that. I can make some calls, write some letters, anything I can do to help make that happen,” Robinson said.
Josh also wants to open a deer hunting ranch with his dad, one with exotic animals. He wants to create an opportunity for physically challenged youths like himself to have the opportunity to enjoy the sport of hunting.
“I had that opportunity myself, and I know how special it is. Plus, it would be special to share that with my dad,” he said.
Josh and his friends and family realize the life battle he faces. However, as he was growing up, the life expectancy of those with DMD has been extended, so he maintains hope for a cure.
But his main focus is to enjoy life now and not think of how much time is left. After all, what good is all the time in the world if it’s spent worrying about something we can do nothing about anyway?
“My parents taught me to wake up and thank the Good Lord for another day, then I go out and try to make it as good a day as I can for myself and all those around me,” he said. “Maybe I was put in this situation for a reason. There’s kids with way worse problems.”
That’s Josh, always looking at the positive side, a quality that endears him to so many.
“Everybody in school loves Josh. Everybody gives him fist bumps when they see him, he’s such a great guy,” Robinson said. “Life is fragile, and he makes today pretty special.”